Thursday, September 15, 2016

Income data shows we need to build more dense housing in cities

There is some good news out of the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual Current Population Survey, but it can turn into bad news if we don't see the correct policy response. For the first time in years median incomes are up. The problem is that all of this increase is primarily focused in cities. From  Next City:

Households in metro areas saw a 6 percent increase in median incomes, from $55,920 in 2014 to $59,258 in 2015. Households in the “principle cities of metropolitan areas” saw a 7.3 percent increase over the same time period. Suburban households — those in metro areas but outside of principle cities — had the highest median income at $64,144. 

At the same time, households in rural areas or small towns didn’t see a statistically significant change in median income, and had the lowest median income — $44,657. Similarly, the poverty rate dropped to 13 percent in metropolitan statistical areas — down from 14.5 percent in 2014 — but the poverty rate outside of metro areas remained almost unchanged at 16.7 percent.
We are seeing a re-urbanization trend in this country which I believe is thanks to a dramatic drop in urban crime over the past several decades. People are moving to our now much safer cities, and American cities have once again become what cities have been throughout most of human history: drivers of innovation and prosperity. We should be helping more people who want to move to cities take advantage of this.

The problem is that policy makers are not allowing this to happen. We aren't building enough densely situated apartments, rowhouses, and condos in the most desirable cities. This is pushing rent up dramatically in cities. I wouldn't be surprised if people living in these urban cores didn't feel any financial improvement because rising rents have more than eaten up any income increases. This is an issue that can be easily be solved by simply allowing people who want to build more urban housing to do so.

Creating more density to allow more people to move to major cities would improve their health, their finances, and dramatically reduce their carbon foot print. Yet even in big cities that are run by liberal politicians --who supposedly care deeply about these things-- building more is way too difficult. In some places it is even being made more difficult thanks new rules that are actually counter productive.

As a futurist, I find this deeply depressing. Re-urbanization is a fairly simple societal change and a straightforward policy goal that would actually improve the lives of most people. If we can't deal with this issue, I fear how we will handle more dramatic changes soon to come, like the massive employment displacement self-driving technology will cause.

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